MICHIGAN CITY -- About a month ago, when a Michigan City student-athlete tested positive for the coronavirus and summer workouts were suspended, senior football players got a hint of what it might be like to lose their season.
"That was scary," receiver Kaydarious Jones said. "We had just finished practice, we were outside here, waiting on guys to get rides and (the coaches) came out and said we were shut down for two weeks. It's like the quote, you never know what you had until it's taken away from you. We couldn't wait to get back and we've been playing our hearts out since we got the chance. We don't want it to happen to us. We want to be able to finish our season."
Practice resumed July 27, City hasn't had any interruptions in football since, and players are doing what they can try to help keep it that way as the Aug. 21 season opener comes into focus.
"Wherever we go, we always go together, we aren't hanging out with anyone else," running back Jonathan Flemings said. "Just chill within this circle. We want our season and we've got to be cautious with that. We're practicing every day like it's going to be our last practice. We've got to go all out, mentally and physically. We've got to prepare because we don't have a long time to prepare. We're practicing like we're going to have a first game."
Players organized a chat to keep tabs on each other and make sure everyone's staying on point.
"Just stay with the family," Jones said.
As it's shown at other levels of sports, one slip-up can be all it takes.
"We all talk in the group chat," lineman Javont Hodges said. "We understand, we're still young, we want to go out and have fun, but football is really important, so stay home, stay with the people you've been with, the people you know, who haven't been going out, partying. It's day to day. We're making sure we're good on that. I work at Culver's. We have to follow the protocols, wear a mask, wear gloves, so I'm used to it."
After a disjointed junior year that saw him start the season at La Porte, then transfer back to M.C., where he went to school previously, Hodges wants to make a splash as a senior.
"The whole situation wasn't easy," he said. "Coming back, I'm glad I had the support of the rest of the team. They embraced me as their brother. I'm gonna leave my mark. I've got to do what I have to do."
All three want to play football in college and the loss of much of the summer as far as camps and recruiting puts a greater emphasis on being able to show out during the season.
"I definitely want to get more exposure," Jones said. "We just practice as hard as we can, making sure we're not making simple mistakes, making sure we're game ready if we have games."
Given all the variables involved, Wolves coach Phil Mason is glad that in-person school isn't one of them.
"The schools in hybrids are going to run into issues," Mason said. "There's no way it can't trickle down into the athletic program. There's no way to stop it. At first, I was concerned about being in E-Learning, but I think it will be just fine. We're going to have to work to keep tabs on them with that. We have so much control of them in the building, bringing them over here and feeding them, we lose a little of that, but hopefully they get to sleep in a little longer, they don't have to shower and get on a bus. So many kids take on-line classes now, it's kind of like being in college."
While Jones would rather be in school, he realizes it's for the best as it relates to sports.
"It's a great option," he said. "I like to go to school, I love the school experience, but if it happened in school, it could jeopardize our season."
Mason credits the open-mindedness and support of the school corporation as they face the challenge of playing sports during a pandemic.
"They want us to plow forward as best as we can," he said. "(Superintendent) Dr. (Wendell) McCollum called and asked how it was going and I told him things were going well. He said the school board is still in favor of us continuing. That's good to hear. We just have to stay positive, stay the course, keep working. I tell everybody, just let me worry about it. It does worry me. It does bring me down sometimes. Every day, you get hit with something different from this thing. You've got to look at how you're going to manage everything, games, masks, hydration, stuff you didn't have to worry about before, at least not to that extent."
In an anxious world of unknowns, Mason finds solace in being on the football field, as he's sure the players do as well.
"It's really disappointing to see the Big Ten, Pac 12," he said. "I'm sure it's going to raise some flags, now that IU and Purdue aren't playing. The whole political party thing, stuff has gone so far one way or the other -- you're crazy, you're overreacting -- the middle is a super highway, four lanes and nobody's on it. I want to be the guy that's on it. In some sense, somehow this country has to pull itself together. There's so much division. Where's it all going to go? The thing with this group, 15 minutes into practice, I've forgotten it all. We're coaching, playing football, having a good time. I think you have to keep in mind how important it is for these guys. They want to play. They want something to do."
Last season's 4-6 record aside, Mason was most disappointed with how the program's culture regressed, a trend he believes will reverse itself, given the opportunity.
"I would say right now we're going into like July mode," he said. "It's a young group, eight, nine seniors, but they're really good kids who have bought into the philosophy of the program. I felt we derailed last year, but I think we'll get right back on track. We're headed in a great direction. I think it'll be a good year. We've got great skill players on both sides of the football. I wish we were a little deeper in a couple spots. The freshman group is really going to be a group that can change the course of where we're headed. We're going to give some teams some problems. We know how good Valpo is, how good Merrillville is going to be, but when we get to the point, we'll just have to make sure we're ready, give it a shot and see what happens."
Will it get there? No one, at this point, knows for sure, except for Whiting and the Hammond schools, who have already cancelled their seasons. Along with most teams in the area, Michigan City and New Prairie cancelled their scrimmage, Mason saying 'it just doesn't make any sense right now.'
"If something's going to go wrong, I'd rather have it happen when the scoreboards actually running," he said. "If we make it that far, I'll be worried about Labor Day weekend. I just had a kid tell me he might be going to a camp over the weekend, I said no, you can't go places right now. It's hard, I get it. We've got to keep them in somewhat of a bubble as much as we can. I haven't seen anybody with (the virus). I think it's going to be somebody other than a kid to bring it down if that happens. Hopefully, it doesn't. I just think there's going to be a hiccup somewhere. The majority of schools will not play all nine games. I just don't see happening. All you can do is go with it."
Quarterback Giovani Laurent is among a large number of talented skill position players that Michigan City will have at its disposal this season, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 21. (Photo by Robb Quinn)